It's safe to say that De La Soul have nothing left to prove in their career. Let's just all agree on that. That being said, the group hasn't released an official LP since 2004's The Grind Date, despite staying active with remixes, guest spots and dropping a 44-minute track for Nike. There has even been talk that they are collaborating with Prince Paul again. We shouldn't expect much anymore from De La, a group that's been together since '87 and dropped a handful of solid, if not classic, LPs. Still, if you are going to stick around and make hints about new music, at some point fans are gonna wonder when the next joint drops?
Insert First Serve, a collaboration between 2/3rds of De La Soul -- Plug 1 and Plug 2 (aka Posdnuos and Dave) respectively. The group's semi-self titled debut is a concept album that tells the story of a young rap duo's rise out of Queens, New York, to fame, fortune and the drama that comes with trying to maintain a friendship together through it all. Featuring Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow and Dean Whitter (played by Plug 1 and Plug 2), the two eventually hook up with the fictional Goon Time Records, and a couple of European producers named 2 and 4 in an attempt to change the sound of hip-hop.
First Serve starts strong as if Plug 1 and 2 haven't missed a beat. "Opening Credits" does what the title suggests, introducing the main characters from a Queens bedroom over energetic horn arrangements and De La rhymes like, "I'm not a dread-lock Rasta/just an asshole who crashed into a Mazda/proceeded to unjam the door/limped through the drive-thru/ordered a number four." The following "Pushin' Aside, Pushin' Along" comes with soulful vocal samples over an upbeat looping piano. The two trade chorus lines with bravado and inspirational urban proverbs: "Through the stress and all the doubt/my eyes stayed glued to it/ like the words of the song just push it aside and push it along." Our young MCs are still pure at this point, showcasing their dedication to their craft with an upbeat, positive-vibe reminiscent of early Blackalicious; a direct disciple of De La Soul. The energy continues on "The Work" with heavy brass lines as the duo rip through verses with more motivation intensity accumulating in the gritty chant of "work! work! work!"
Eventually our young MCs sign their first deal with Goon Time Records on the celebratory "We Made It” with a beat that could easily pass as an early Kanye B-side (soul vocals, record crackling, disco horns). The two trade their excitement of achieving their dreams and earning some money with playful silliness (“I'm gonna get a fatty each night/make her say Daddy all night!" ). They release their first radio single, "Must B the Music," which sounds a little too cheesy at first but then one is reminded of "Kicked Out the House" from De La Soul is Dead and it becomes clear that this is just a part of the act. It's hard to believe either of them would sincerely write a chorus like "Must be the music that’s got me in a trance, making me high."
On the second-half of First Serve, the cinematic feel begins to drench the record in a more pop-oriented sound. "Pop Life" and "Tennis" feel too G-rated, even for MCs from a group that was never known for being hard. The slick, funky upbeat production, especially on "The Book of Life" and "Clash Symphony," overpower the duo's rhymes at time with its lively, dense instrumentation. The narrative arch of the concept album's also begins to thin. Concept albums are largely long and bloated for better or worse. In comparison to such hip-hop concept records as Prince Paul's legendary A Prince Amongst Thieves or even the loosely-conceptual Deltron 3030, the story of Whitter and Barrow seems rushed and lacking real conflict. The big dramatic moment is whether or not duo should go to Cannes for a show. Tension rises and they split. None of the thematic elements that so often characterize hip-hop albums like drugs, guns, death, girlfriend drama or identity issues really ever arise. True that these topics are often played out in hip-hop, but First Serve doesn’t provide much else to replace them and as a result, the story is a little dull.
It can't be ignored, though, that Plug 1 and Plug 2 are in character. And the parts of this album that seem over-the-top or sugary are likely done purposely as subtle criticisms. After all, it's kind of hard to see Dave and Posdnuos being all that into the one-percenters of "Niggas in Paris." Still, the listenability of the second-half might leave hip-hop heads indifferent, often feeling just too full of glossy pop, no matter how solid Plug 1 and Plug 2 continue to rap twenty-five years into their career.
In the end, First Serve works better less as a cohesive concept album and more when approached as an exercise in storytelling, one of the most basic elements of rap. At times, that isn’t all that intriguing, but First Serve remains a respectably ambitious endeavor that offers a handful of excellent tracks to warrant some listening time. At a point in the career of two MCs with nothing left to prove, this offering is, if anything, an indication that promising returns are on the way if De La Soul ever fully reforms.